YellowTAB provided us with a copy of Zeta 1.0 RC-1pre+ plus a few additional patches that were not available at the CD’s press time. We installed and tried out this new version and here’s what we think.
Installation took about 20 minutes with a 52x CD-rom, for full installation. The Installer program has changed a bit, but it still asks you to select if you want a full installation or to install only select programs. I find absolutely no reason in this day and age to bother your users with selective installation a-la Linux, when the difference in the install size is +1/-1 GB. with today’s hard drives, 1 GB is nothing. The somewhat updated UI of the Installer since the Beta 1, also has 2 usability bugs and I have already notified its developer. Overall, it is the same installer as last May: choices and more choices, and badly-resized screenshots. I’ve said this in the past and I will say it again: “BeOS was all about the best possible defaults, not the most choices” and that was one of the reasons why people loved it. “Less is more” our Gnome friends are preaching these days too, and that’s the usability trend both Apple and Microsoft has followed as well.
The Good Stuff
Booting into Zeta on my AthlonXP worked like a charm and I was up and running 15 seconds later. The desktop feels fast, as all BeOS versions of the past did. Users who have never used BeOS will find a friendly feeling as learning the OS takes almost zero time. The whole point of BeOS/Zeta is simplicity and ease of use and this is what “wins” these new users.
The font rendering engine is not great in today’s standards, but it is much-much better than Beta-1 last May. Tracker has SVG vector support, localization works well for a number of languages, USB-2 support is seemingly good as well. Zeta also found my PCI Firewire card and recognized it. Sound worked fine too, it found my Yamaha YMF-754 PCI card, while the mounting ext2/ext3 Slackware partition and my Windows 2003 Server NTFS mounting also worked well. Zeta found successfully my GeForce2MX AGP card too, its network card and used the drivers immediately on boot.
Zeta is fast, as any BeOS you might have used in the past. Loading apps is instant. BeOS users know very well that the occasional UI lock that applications get on all other OSes don’t happen in BeOS and its derivatives. Zeta is no different. It boots and operates fast. Zeta also includes the BONE networking stack, inspired by FreeBSD’s, and while this networking stack still has problems, it is worlds better than BeOS 5’s plain net_server. Additionally, you get the smooth window dragging, as explained here, and lots of new driver support for your PC not found on other BeOS-based releases. I usually use PS/2 mice and keyboards in order to have support from many obscure OSes that I run for OSNews’ business, but I tried my husband’s Logitech USB mouse on my VIA-based hardware (previously not well supported by BeOS’s USB stack) and it worked perfectly. Please note that most of the new drivers (USB 2, better SCSI support, basic wireless etc) can NOT be found on BeBits or elsewhere, they are only available on Zeta.
Zeta comes with a lot of software, software that is mostly found freely on BeBits, but also software that is unique to Zeta: like the fax preferences and app, the address book, ZEdit etc. Some of the software bundled is buggy though, such as Abiword (context menu/3rd mouse button switch, crash on exit). Bochs with FreeDOS is included as well and some other game emulators too. Other software involves CD burning, some system utilities, lots and lots of games. Gobe Productive Office suite 2.x is also included, and I think it is the full version, not just a demo.
Developers will find gcc 2.9-pre installed and ready, however the documentation of the updated Be API to take advantage of the new features (e.g. new printing kit, non-rectangle windows) is not included (Be never wrote that documentation).
The latest releases of Mozilla and Phoenix are included and while they seem a tiny bit faster than my earlier attempts with BeOS on the same machine, the overall feeling is not so positive about their performance under BeOS. Zeta still needs either a better/faster port of Firebird or to finish up their Safari/WebCore port.
If you don’t count my buggy network driver I mention below, YellowTAB Zeta is rock solid. I run it for a few days now with no problems at all. The system just works fast and reliably.
The Bad Stuff
One of the things I did not like in this version of Zeta is that it is using pWarp’s instant-on changing of virtual screens. Each time I put my mouse fast over the Deskbar to do something, I end up on a different workspace. I could not find the pWarpConfig applet on the preferences (it should have being there if YTAB is planning to use pWarp by default in its desktop). I had to go to BeBits, find out that the link for the app was dead, go over to BeZip.de and download it, unpack it, run the configuration app and tell it to stop this very annoying behavior. Only hours later I found that the config applet was placed somewhere the application directory, among hundreds of other apps. The hot corner workspace switch is a nice behavior if a) you are a long-time unix user who can’t live without this ‘feature’ b) if the Deskbar were not in the same “hot” corner as the warping capability. Zeta needs to take care of this immediately in my opinion and not enable this behavior by default. Or if they do, to place the applet in the preference menu. Update: Now YellowTAB tells me that they don’t know how this feature ended up on my default desktop! The pWarp input add-on was pre-installed you see. Update 2: YellowTAB now informed me that they removed the pWarp software from the default Zeta installation.
I still have problems with the RTL8139 driver, as it would randomly fall from 0.200 msec to 7000 msec pinging my FreeBSD gateway, 5 metres away. It feels like I am pinging the moon. Opening the (still buggy) brand new Network panel (BONE’s replacement?) and tell it “Apply Changes” it will fix the problem for about 5 seconds and then the RTL driver would go berserk again. Additionally, Zeta can’t figure out my broadcast address, at least this is what “ifconfig” tells me (0.0.0.0 instead of 10.255.255.255). YellowTAB is currently working on fixing the problem and I must say that I found YellowTAB forthcoming and willing to fix any such problems I found in their software during my evaluation.
Other problems I found are with the Tracker. The redraws are not consistent so I get half-drawn icons, while the status bar of any tracker window is not polished, e.g. it says “10items” instead of “10 items” (yes, I am a nitpicker). Also, the “Show Disks Icon” is broken on Tracker, it just displays a white 32×32 rectangle. Plus, I have to kill Tracker each time I reboot or shut down the machine, because Tracker would refuse to unload.
The weirdest decision to date I saw on Zeta, though, was the inclusion of all available decors (window managers) made available via the… Deskbar. So, you click the main menu of the OS and you get some helpful options, but I don’t see the Decor drop down menu fitting in there. This should be a preference panel, maybe the same as the Colors pref panel and the scrollbar one, but it has no place in the root menu of the OS. And speaking of the preferences, the whole thing needs reworking, it is not 1999 anymore (Be was working on a new preferences system 3 years ago but work was stalled).
Also, I fail to see the point of 11 different calculators included with Zeta, be it the Zeta-Deluxe version or not.
Zeta still requires more polishing and less annoying “features”. Luckily, it would not be difficult for existing BeOS users to customize a Zeta system to their liking, but new users might lose themselves with the confusing warping capability. There are still bugs in the system itself (Dano was work in progress and Zeta is based on Dano code as we found out by comparing system libraries and not just the kernel), but my main concern is the –seeming– non-ability of YellowTAB to bug fix its own system, as it seems they don’t have access to PalmSource’s source code. How do you support a product when its distributors seem to only have binaries? Furthermore, how do you evolve and innovate without having access to the guts of your own product? Yes, I am spoiled by Be,Inc.: I need to see some form of innovation from the OSes I use. So far, Zeta has not innovated. It has patched, it has added some craft (some very useful, some not), it has updated drivers and some high-level parts (this is its strong point as a product), but it has not innovated. Zeta has nothing that other consumer OSes don’t have (except its legendary UI responsiveness and good usability, all inherited by Be’s BeOS), and other OSes have pretty much caught up over the years.
Zeta seems to me more of a distribution of BeOS, based on the Dano codebase, plus additional drivers and applications. This is not particularly a bad thing, it is actually a good thing overall. But it is not the hope for BeOS’ revival. No, and I’m afraid that I do not think that OpenBeOS will be able to save the day either. Maybe there will never be such a revival without PalmSource’s interest in cultivating its own IP.
Overall, this version was a positive upgrade over Beta 1 so I would suggest OS enthusiasts take a look at Zeta, especially UI speed lovers. Ex-BeOS users should definitely consider buying it (because this is effectively BeOS 6’s code plus some of YellowTAB’s craft in it), while other users who want support for very exotic hardware (e.g. Bluetooth, good wireless etc) might be better with their current OSes. Read my Zeta buying guide for more information on your purchasing decisions.